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Lolita May Never Go Free. And That Could Be What’s Best For Her, Scientists Say

Miami Herald
A group of children from Ozark, Missouri, watch Seaquarium training manager Heather Keenan interact with Lolita after their afternoon show on Sept. 1, 2010.

For nearly 25 years, the Miami Seaquarium’s killer whale, Lolita, has been the star of a sequel that has never been made.

In 1995, inspired by the original tale of Keiko, the whale in the 1993 film “Free Willy,” a Washington state governor sought to make Lolita the next captive killer whale returned to the ocean. A fundraising campaign ensued, and soon it seemed that Free Lolita could be the next real-life Free Willy.

Former Gov. Mike Lowry’s vision has since spawned hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, more than a dozen lawsuits and annual protests at the Miami Seaquarium on Aug. 8 — the anniversary of Lolita’s 1970 capture off Puget Sound. Moms with their kids, college students in whale costumes and out-of-state advocates turn up on Virginia Key each year to support the Free Lolita movement.

But often lost in the well-meaning attempts to return Lolita home is one central question: Is freedom really what’s best for her?

The orca, now about 50 years old, remains the last known survivor of the group of more than 50 whales captured 47 years ago. Since her mate died of a brain aneurism in 1980, she has become the only solitary orca in captivity, where she lives in the smallest killer whale tank in the nation.

As the years have passed, the likelihood of her return to the sea — and her ability to adjust to that change — has become less likely, said Russ Rector, a long-time marine mammal advocate. Lolita’s identity as a living being has been usurped, he said.

“She is just a casualty of captivity and the activists. She has become an icon that quite frankly, nothing has been done for her except a slogan: ‘Free Lolita, Free Lolita,’ ” Rector said. “I’m sure Lolita appreciates that.”

Read more at our news partner, the Miami Herald.